Showing posts with label Excerpts from Son of a Gun. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Excerpts from Son of a Gun. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Write Your Own Story

Excerpt from

Son of a Gun
Marty Halverson

“There was a man ... my daddy’s voice was as soft and low as a lullaby—would break the heart of Lucifer himself to hear him and Ma sing harmony.” Leo told her then about his sisters, Josey’s harmonica and Nataki . . . “she said our music would make the angels weep.”

“What’d you do?” Ruby asked, picturing the scene.

“Strummed. I got a guitar. We sang all the old Kentucky songs to the Texas wilderness to while away the summertime darkness.” He told her about watching the lightning chain at eight years old, when they first settled the ranch. “Nothing but the wind and the rain to argue with,” he said. Lost in his own memories, Leo went on, “After Ma died of the measles, just before my daddy followed her, he said, ‘I tell you boys, if either of you remember how your ma taught you how to pray, get down on your kneebones this night and tell Him up yonder you’re beholden for the life he give us.’”

Chagrined at his rambling, Leo rolled over and looked at Ruby. “I oughta’ save part of my breath for breathing.” He was talking to her as he’d talked to no one in years.

“You’re good company, Leo Barlow.”

"Guess if you're going to spend your whole life with yourself you need to learn to be good company."

Memoir is my favorite kind of writing, so t
here are a lot of memories tucked in my novel of the old west. Using fiction, I tried to capture emotions that were genuine. I've never lived in Texas, nobody in my family played a harmonica, and ma didn't die of the measles, but I remember summer nights listening to my daddy sing, listening to my mama pray. I remember the joy of pouring those memories out to Dee like sweet syrup, introducing him to the girl I'd been. And I remember learning to enjoy my own company. The story behind this story is true.

It's time to write your own memoir.
How would you tell a story from your childhood?
Get it ready for the campfire—summer nights are coming!

(It's the new season of The Write Stuff Workshops!)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sibling Relationships

Cowboy Brothers

I love writing about family relationships. In Son of a Gun some of my favorite scenes explored the relationship of two stepbrothers. This excerpt depicts how young teenage boys show affection. I based it on the interaction between my own sons as they were growing up.

Son of a Gun
Marty Halverson

“You lowdown mavericker! You thievin’ my cattle, agin, boy?” With a whoop, JJ leaped on the back of his brother’s horse, attacking MJ in a Texas wrestle. They had the common knowledge that they were tough, but who was toughest on a given day depended on who could pin who.

Sliding to the ground, MJ had trouble putting down his younger brother, and might never have made it if Trespass hadn’t leaped in and begun licking JJ’s face and nipping him in the side til he hit his ticklebone. That got JJ to giggling so hard he couldn’t fight, and MJ was glad to press the boy’s shoulders flat into the dirt of the trail and quit while he could.

They got up, knocking the dust and twigs off themselves to cover the awkward spell that was bound to set in when big boys had carried on too catnippy for their ages. As always, it was JJ who got to talking first. As they walked toward the barn with Trespass yapping at their feet and pawing for attention, he babbled a blue-tailed streak, as if they’d been separated for a month instead of just a few days.

“Ain’t you had nobody to talk to, Jage?" MJ asked. "That cowlicked filly a’ yours stopped listening to your chatter?” JJ faked a scowl but went right on jabbering, letting his brother lap up the family news.
It's fascinating to create characters—they actually come to life! As I got to know these brothers, I loved the relationship they had.

Do you have young sons, brothers or nephews?
I'd love to hear your observations about how boys show affection for each other.
How is it different from girls?

Leave a comment!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Writing Workshop: Show, Don't Tell

Turk tilted his chair against the kitchen wall, scratched his middle-aged paunch, and felt the warmth of the late summer sun on his gnarled and flaming knuckles. It had been a fine Saturday morning until this crazy woman he worked for announced another out and out war with Sam Lester. “It’s like spittin' in the man’s face,” he told Ruby. “He’ll have to spit back, and Sam has got breath like a double-seater."Son of a Gun by Marty Halverson
  How much do you learn about Turk from this paragraph?

Turk was my favorite character when I wrote Son of a Gun. He was going to be just a walk-on, Ruby's boss, but the more I wrote about him, the more he told me about himself. I saw him bake sourdough for the cowboys on a cattle drive, pick his teeth after dinner, develop a paternal crush on Ruby—he grew on me.

After listening to his tall-tales, lounging by a crackling fire, with the aroma of horses and steaming coffee nearby, I couldn't hurt his feelings by not including them. So I let him tell the stories to the little boys, and even my editor couldn't cut them out.

James N. Frey wrote, "If, after you have created your characters you do not see them in your mind's eye walking, talking, breathing, perspiring . . . put them on the couch and start asking them questions. By the time you've thoroughly interviewed your character he should have become like a dear friend or a hated enemy. Once you feel that close, you should be confident working with him."

Introducing a character and then allowing her to be observed is the best technique, whether you're creating an imaginary friend for a book, fleshing out a kindergarten teacher for a memoir, or discovering yourself for your blog. Instead of telling readers what to think ("he's sixty, overweight and has arthritis") show them ("Turk scratched his middle-aged paunch and felt the sun warm his gnarled and flaming knuckles.") Let them draw their own conclusions. Remember trying to convince your dad that your boyfriend was a hard worker? It wasn't as effective as the time he helped your dad move. Suddenly your dad was saying, "Hang onto him. He's a hard worker!" That's the difference between telling and showing.

Try it. List three of your own traits. Now use those traits to describe yourself, without using the actual words. "He lifted her chin, but she wouldn't look him in the eye after her outburst." Did you guess that she was short, stubborn and emotional

Show, Don't Tell assignment: 
 Leave your description in a comment. The next person guesses the three characteristics, and then writes a sentence about themselves.  

Come on—show us what a character you are!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

I Love Stories

"Writing a first novel takes so much effort,
with such little promise of result or reward,
that it must necessarily be a labor of love
bordering on madness."
—Steven Saylor

The final edit of my novel arrived today from the publisher. Word by word, comma by comma, I'm going through and signing off. Son of a Gun takes place in Texas around 1874 and I've incorporated many actual events into the story. Here's an excerpt that might make your skin crawl.

Son of a Gun
Marty Halverson

“Damn cataracts,” Turk said to Leo, rubbing silvery spots from his eyes. Against the blue sky they multiplied and began dropping to the earth. “Hoppers!”

The insects fell like giant snowflakes, crawling over the fields in a solid body, eating every green thing growing. Almost immediately the hillside looked like a waterfall, the hoppers were so thick. When they had eaten the fields bare, they piled on fence posts and ate the bark. They ate harnesses, window curtains, hoe handles and even each other. Leo tied strings around his trouser bottoms to keep the pests from crawling up and biting his legs. Lighting on trees, the hoards broke limbs under their weight.

The beating of wings on the roof terrified the boys who screamed as the creatures writhed through their hair and down their shirts. Ruby tried to secure the house, smashing them with a broom after shaking them out of the bedding. Turk spread gunnysacks over the precious vegetable patch, but the grasshoppers ate right through.

The men dug trenches to bury the critters, and lit fires to burn them out, but the flames were covered and smothered by more grasshoppers piling a foot deep. Horses stood helplessly as the pests crawled over their bodies, tickling their ears, eyes and nostrils. Fresh water was polluted by the bugs, and the cows and chickens that gorged on the hoppers would be useless as food, as would fish in the streams because they would smell and taste like grasshoppers.

Word came from Fort Worth that a dark cloud of grasshoppers landed on the tracks and stopped the trains; grease from the crushed insects set locomotive wheels spinning.

The Grasshopper Plague of 1874 affected the colored areas on the map. My own great-great grandfather, Andrew Jackson Allen, wrote about a similar plague in Utah:

May 7, 1848:

We commenced making water ditches for irrigation which were a new business to us. The spring grain sprung up and looked quite good. The next thing we see was thousands of young crickets making their appearance in every direction. We discovered they were eating at the young growing wheat and gardens. We began to destroy them in every way we could, but all in vain. It really seemed as though the more we killed, the more came.

May 20, 1848:

Those crickets had been eating at the wheat for weeks, our efforts to kill them all in vain. Just now seagulls came in flocks by the thousands and began to eat the crickets. They would cover the fields and fill themselves and then they would fly to the water and drink, then they would vomit them up and go again and fill up again. They seemed to repeat this time after time after time, and soon they destroyed the crickets in a great measure. We attributed this miracle to the hand of the Lord in our behalf. If those gulls had not destroyed them, the crickets would have destroyed all the growing crops among this people.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Now it's your turn:
Any miracles in your family?
Turn them into a story!

Monday, March 14, 2011

What If You'd Married What's-His-Name?

Mary Engelbreit

An excerpt from
Son of a Gun
Marty Halverson

Ruby sat by the window and considered her reflection in the September twilight.
Streaks of sunset polished her skin, and caught her hair on fire. Where would she be tonight if not for Leo?
Leo lived in that rare grace of self that could keep his identity in tact through any ordeal. He did not depend on outward props to shore himself up; heartache, circumstance and violence could not eradicate the moral, gentle habits of his upbringing. Jack had been a mirage. Leo had been a well, hardly visible from a distance but with the depth and purity to restore her. Ruby hardly ever thought of those ugly days anymore. Leo had broken off that part of her life like he would the wormy end of a piece of corn. When it was gone, it was forgotten and he just saw the golden, fresh promise she held inside.

Admit it: old What's-His-Name was just a mirage. Think of one word that describes what you missed out on by dumping him. I'll go first: TROUBLE.

What five words describe the life you have (or the life you want) with your true love. I'll go first:
  1. Fun
  2. Unique
  3. Educational
  4. Intriguing
  5. Memorable
Aren't you relieved you didn't end up with a dork?:

Now it's your turn~

Write down why you're glad you're with the guy you're with. Someday in the future someone will want to know. (And someday in the present, you might need a reminder, yourself!) I've written many such love letters; click here for one of my favorites.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Son of a Gun: Editor's Notes

Excerpt from
Son of a Gun
Marty Ann Halverson

After Ruby and the babies were sleeping in the wagon under a
mountain of quilts, Leo found Turk hunkered down before the fire smoking a
cigar. The light made plain the long, half-bitter lines of the man’s face, the
thin pressure around the lips.

Turk was near sixty, small, tough and wiry, showing the knocks of life.
He had ash-white hair and the steadiest brown eyes Leo had ever noticed in a
man. His language was colorful, with a southern twang, and, because Ruby
did, Leo trusted him instantly without reservation.

“Night-owling,” Turk said. “Nothing like a prairie sky on a winter

By day the cloudless skies had been gun-metal blue. By dark the
blazing stars were low, growing in size and whiteness until Leo could hardly
believe they were real. The frosty stillness carried a coyote’s bark so clear and
sharp that it made the short hairs on the back of Leo’s neck rise up and shiver
him in a grand, fearful way.

Cigar finished, Turk asked, “When did you arrive in this wondrous
country, Mr. Barlow?”

“Back in 1850. People were flooding into Texas like a spring river then.
We got swept along.”

Leo harrowed the hard earth with his heel, sniffed a handful of dirt
and sifted it through his fingers. “My folks loved this land. Bet their muscle
and grit on it—dug mesquite sprouts for heat, watered the crops with sweat.
Started ranching soon after, gathering the wild cows and branding them for
our own. Texas longhorns—tough to eat and tough to handle.”

My first critique:

"The section is the best information dump I've seen in a while! You gave us the info we needed, through a smokescreen! I wanted roast a marshmallow! Congratulations!"

(Yay! I've got a nice editor!)

I got my first edit back from my publisher and I'm thrilled! He was extremely kind, and there were more colorful lines telling me what I'd done right than what I'd done wrong. He made positive comments on my choice of details:

"Personally, I think July 1st is the best day to be born!"

he wrote off to the side when he saw JJ's birthday.

"I want this horse!"

when I described Big Red. He followed up with "Let's choose one name and be consistent! You've got Red, Autumn Red, Big Red, they're all fine. Pick just one—it's up to you—and stick with it." I didn't feel defensive at all! He's right.

I've worried this month, knowing my novel was getting such a thorough check up. What if I'd been a bad author, used her to inflict pain and boredom on unsuspecting wannabe fans. What if she needed surgical cutting to remove all the bland words I'd stuffed her with? I've heard of editors circling the most precious parts of a book and ordering the author to "Murder your darlings."

I've been dreading the day I got the manuscript back, bleeding red from every comma. But it was a total ego-boost to receive it! It was topped with a letter that said,

"As someone who is a big fan of westerns, I'd say you've done a great job with this book. Your story is engaging and exciting. Your readers will certainly be hooked!"

The pages were decorated with green highlighted questions and turquoise highlighted suggestions, brightening up a few gray strike-out sections. It was really fun to read through all his comments. I agreed with most of them immediately. Since I finished the novel in September, I feel like I've learned a lot about writing, and there's some tightening up of adverbs and gerunds that will improve the pace.

Other than a few repetitious statements, redundant words, etc. he didn't cut anything at all. He restructured a few sentences in minor ways, but I could see immediately that it read better. I'm delighted and excited to have a trained, experienced editor be complimentary about Son of a Gun pretty much the way she came out of my computer. (I trust my test readers, but I know you were too conscious of my feelings to be too critical.)

I'm feeling more confident about being a legitimate published novelist. It's mind-blowing!! I also feel better about being an editor. I do my job pretty much the way he does his. (Reading, studying and taking on-line courses pays off!)

I'll keep you posted on the publishing process. So far it's consisted of an email, two phone calls all in one week. Then a contract came in the mail and I sent it back signed. And since then I get a couple of emails a month that I respond to with little piddly things like "who do you want the book dedicated to?" "send your bio photo" "We'll have to edit your bio down twenty words." The manuscript came back this time by email, with very helpful and carefully worded instructions on how to make the changes and send it back without deleting it entirely.

Tate Publishing has been totally nice, supportive, true to the dates they promised. They all seem interested in me as a person and they act like they genuinely like the book!!! I'm happy and surprised at how fun the process is playing out.

It's your turn: TRY IT!
That book that's haunting you? It's not scary! Get started!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Son of a Gun: Character Building

An excerpt from my novel:

Following the swollen stream, they passed through the lush timbered
basin onto the wide-open range. Spicy sage scented the late afternoon air,
mockingbirds whistled, and woodpeckers tapped, but Ruby didn’t notice her
surroundings. Finally she sighed and dropped her hands to the saddle horn.
The boy pulled up beside her. Without raising her voice, she said
gently, “JJ, I want to tell you about your name. Can we walk?”

A breeze lifted his dark blond bangs, and he resettled his hat, then
dismounted and took his mother’s reins to guide both horses.

“Your father was called Jack, Jack Smith actually.” She started from
the beginning. “I only knew him for one night. He was just passing through
Greenville and I was young and a little wild, like you, with a hankering to get
out and see the world, make a new start. Anyway, this tall, black-haired
cowboy flirted with me.” She paused, remembering. “Oh, he was quite the
sugar mouth, and he seemed so adventurous and bold . . .”

Ruby lifted the chestnut hair from the back of her neck, letting the
cool wind blow on her neck. She unwrapped her black ribbon bracelet and
tied her curls back in a ponytail, then arched the kinks out of her spine,
twisting her shoulders back to her son.

“He had a beautiful red mare, almost the same color as Cowlick is. She
was a hand taller than any other mount I’ve seen, sleek, well muscled, alert,
with a pure white mane and tail. He’d raised her from a foal, and he loved
her; he even talked to her, and he claimed she talked back. It took me two
seconds to fall in love, first with Big Red, and then with Jack Smith.”

JJ’s eyes were wide, tearless and unblinking, but his face was still soft
and mobile with boyhood, and his mouth worked against trembling.

“I thought if he liked me enough he’d take me with him,” Ruby
continued, “so I did what girls do when they want a man to like them. But he
didn’t like me enough. He was gone the next morning.” Her voice trailed off
for a moment before she went on. “So then, after a while, I had you.”

She looked at him to see if he understood what she’d just told him, and
when he wouldn’t meet her gaze she saw that he did.

“Did he ever know about me?” JJ asked. He couldn’t quite hide the
longing in his voice. Pine trees, dusky in the twilight sun, cast a shadow across
the boy’s face; frigid water bubbled in the stream, like the ice-cold answer she
had to give him.

“No, JJ. No, he didn’t.”

He plowed his toe into the damp brush edging the stream. A low bluff
surrounded by limestone boulders overlooked them, and shaded their path in
the early evening chill.

“Can we go home, now?” JJ asked.

Writing is like acting.
You pretend you are different people and see how they handle life.
It has given me insight.

It's your turn:
Imagine yourself in someone else's shoes, and write about it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Excerpt from Son of a Gun

The Barlow Boys

Ruby had always planned to tell JJ the truth about his father, and the truth about herself, but as the years went by it was easier to let him think he knew the truth. Besides, she’d never actually lied to him, although the lie was there, every time she said his name. Son of a Gun is the story of Jack Smith, a Texas cowboy, and Ruby, the beautiful farm girl who gave up her innocence to raise their son. And Leo, the man who discovered the truth about all of them.

Excerpt from Son of a Gun


Ruby maneuvered her belly around the wooden counter, avoiding the broom Turk was sweeping back and forth. “I can’t stay in Greenville, Turk. I’m an embarrassment to Ma. Folks cross the street so they don’t have to talk to me, and then cross it again so they can talk about me.” Wiping down the stove was the last of the kitchen chores.

“Once the baby comes, they’ll have a bit more tolerance,” Turk told her. “I’ve seen it happen. Right now you’re a fallen woman in their eyes, but afterwards you’ll be a novice in need of advice. Those old women will fall all over you in a matronly welcome, full of critique and opinions.”

“After the way they’ve cat-called and gossiped? They’re all hypocrites and frauds. I need to start over, make a life for us, find some man who’s as kindhearted as you to step in as this baby’s daddy.” Her blue eyes twinkled. “But I want him younger and with more hair.” Ruby untied her apron and flicked it at Turk, dusting his newly swept floor with a billow of flour.

“You find someone better’n me—someone who’s made a good name for hisself,” he told her.

“So, what’s your real name, Turk?” Ruby said.

“Ain’t you ever heard of courtesy, girl?” Turk asked, surprised.

“Laws, I was raised on courtesy! When I was a girl and a stranger showed up at our ranch, Ma always offered food. And my daddy gave him tobacco. In fact, he tacked a note to the door when we was gone that said, ‘Help yourself to grub—please feed the chickens.”

Turk smiled. “What if they was on the dodge from the law?”

“Most of ‘em probably was, but my folks allowed them their privacy. After one cowboy had finished his dinner I asked him what his name was. ‘Jones is the name,’ he said. As soon as he rode off, Ma laid into me for being so ill-mannered as to ask any man his name.”

“So why you askin’ me, if you know it’s an impoliteness?”

“Because you’re not a stranger—you’re a friend.”

The old man looked at Ruby fondly. “It’s ‘cause you’re a friend that I’ll keep it to ‘Turk.’ Don’t want you influenced by my past.”

“You think I’d judge? After all the mud I’m draggin’ through? Come on, how’d you turn into a cook? Just tell me that.” She got out a cigar and handed it to him. “Let’s set outside a bit,” she said, knowing he couldn’t resist a smoke and an audience at the same time.

“Seein’ as how you’re producing the grandchild I’ll never have, I’ll trust you with my history.” He carried the stool outside for Ruby, and sprawled himself on a deteriorating rocker that squawked when he sat. “From the time I was fifteen I was cow punching. Came up from the south and joined an outfit. But you can only be a cowboy for so long before your bones betray you,” Turk rubbed his back unconsciously.

“Something breaks or the arthritis sets in, and you can’t handle those thickheaded, panic-prone beeves any more.” He rocked back and puffed the cigar. “Then a man finds another career. Like cookin’ ‘em.”

Turk had been a top hand until his knees stopped bending backwards with every dip of the horse. He took over in the chuck wagon, where he was respected as a know-it-all and a considerable talker. He held that it did a man no good to be more brilliant than others unless he let them know about it, more or less endlessly.

“I ran foul of a bad man in some Abilene gambling house back when I was punchin.’ And the bad man, who had a record of having killed someone somewhere, attempted to take some sort of liberty with one of my bets. When I politely requested the bad man keep his hands off, the bad man became very angry and made some rude remarks. I walked out.”

“Don’t you take it all!” Ruby said. “Is this a lesson on forgiveness?”

“You ain’t heard the rest of the story. This same man hooked up with our outfit a couple a years later, and I recognized him right off. He didn’t take no account of me, being bearded now, and a mere cook. He was a bit of a braggart, telling the boys how dangerous and feared he was.”
Turk chewed on the wet stump of his cigar, remembering.

“Did any of the other cowboys know about Abilene?” Ruby asked.

“Yeh, they did. But cowboys are a private lot. They don’t share news that’s not theirs to share.

“Well, the bad man went on irritating the hands, and one night, a couple of weeks into the ride, he beat up on a boy who helped me with the chuck wagon. This particular boy was a mite slow, didn’t catch on quick, and was a bit too friendly in a child-like way. He smiled too much, eager to please. The cowboys liked him and put up with his gregarious manner. But he got in the rascal’s hair and he beat the kid— boy lost an eye.

“There was talk of stringing this devil up, or shooting him on the spot—he was a bad man, a killer. But cowboys are merely folks, just plain, every-day, bow-legged humans, not wanting trouble. They decided to let things ride til we got to town.

“Next morning there was a little ruckus, and somebody found him dead in his blanket. No bullet, no noose, no nothing, but dead as could be.”

Turk stopped talking, cracked his knuckles and stood up. He looked back at the dark sky as if he had finished his story.

“Well, tell me the end!” said Ruby. “What happened?”

“I poisoned him,” said Turk, burying the cigar stump with his toe. “That’s why I changed my name.” He chuckled silently and went back inside The Blue Belle.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Will I Do After Tomorrow?

They're riding off into the sunset.

An excerpt from

Son of a Gun

Marty Halverson

They were a few miles from the fence line when Cowlick warned him of the storm. Her ears pricked and she twitched restlessly, jogging a crooked course while JJ looked for low ground and waited for the thunder. Lightning balls of electricity rolled over the prairie, and he had trouble controlling the petrified animal. Cold drops started before the thunder even stopped, and they hid out in a hollow littered with butterfly weed until the danger of lightning passed.

JJ thought he’d fall on his face before he got a fire started on the rain-pelted grass beside the stream. Too tired to make it to the pines where he’d have more shelter, he hobbled Cowlick under a tree and rigged his tarp as a lean-to for himself and the fire.

He pulled his boots off, propping them upside down on sticks in front of the fire, and then warmed his half-frozen feet. The aspen branches clashed in the wind, and cold rain ran down his back, but he sat there exhausted.

After a minute he dug out a can of beans, and leaned forward toward the coals to warm them. Water poured down from the crease of his sodden black Stetson, turning the fire to wet gray ashes. With the dismal despair of a boy whose present misfortune is past calculation, JJ stood up to retrieve extra matches from his saddlebag and felt his sock feet sinking in the mud. His tarp and blankets were soaked now, and he sank to the earth close to tears.

Ahead, a vague shadow appeared in the night’s blackness; the vaguest of shadows, at once defined by a whinny.

“Who’s that?” JJ called out.

The horse whinnied again. The night wind got colder and the rustling echoes from the nearby trees strengthened as the rain stopped. Squatted against the earth, JJ finally caught a silhouette of the horse against the pale-black sky, but saw no rider. Rising he clucked his tongue gently, stepping nearer the trees.

The horse moved toward Cowlick. “Steady—steady.” JJ moved close to the horse and caught hold of the bridle, his palm touching a hide that held only faint warmth. And then he felt a hand.

Sweat cracked through his forehead, running down his face with the rain from his hat. Scratching a match on his belt, he held up the light to see a body, slumped in the saddle. In that moment he recognized the derby hat and the waxen face that had belonged to Snake.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Son of a Gun

Photo by Jay Dusard

These are my cowboy sons. I gave them life, doesn't that count?

To catch you up on what's been happening at Barlow Ranch lately. Ruby, our beautiful prostitute turned respectable by marrying Leo, and the handsome, forgiving hero, live on a cattle ranch in Texas where they are raising their sons JJ and MJ with the help of Turk, the grandfatherly cook (with a mysterious dastardly past.)

Jack is Ruby's old one-night stand (JJ's father) who ditched her. He's the bad boy she pines for, who was in a gunfight defending Ruby's reputation and we think he's dead (maybe or maybe not. We shall see.) Her old "boss" Sam was furious when she dropped out of the tricky business he runs in the saloon, and accepted the good life at her rich, new husband's ranch. Sam's out to destroy her.

The Barlows have had all sorts of adventures—a tornado, a grasshopper plague, fires, threats, a-near affair, etc. and many successes—a school, church, sawmill, growth of the herds, etc. All these have been exploited or ruined by Sam's men. Leo is a Quaker and will not turn to violence against these violent attacks. (Leo and I are working through his qualms for a satisfying surprise ending.)

That's a tiny synopsis so you'll understand this scene.

Last night Sam sent his cronies out to vandalize their property and put the Barlows in mortal danger. MJ was awakened by the bad guy's jingling spurs and looked outside to see them, under the moon (one's a Mexican who wears a long Indian blanket over his shoulder, belted by his buscadero rig of criss-crossed guns over his chest) smoking their cigar-eets, creeping around. Half asleep, MJ didn't know what he'd seen. The next morning at breakfast this scene unfolds:

Excerpt from

Son of a Gun

Marty Halverson

The kitchen was warm from the fire and there was a fine smell of bacon frying and coffee steaming. Eight-year-old MJ was a good eater and he leaned into his food, downing an egg and five strips of bacon, plus a couple of hotcakes. Dipping a sugar cube in her coffee, Ruby sucked its sweetness and dipped a couple more. “Here, Sugarmouths,” she said to her little boys, who loved this morning ritual.

MJ could not have presented a more appealing picture as a wide-eyed, wandering, barefoot boy. His beaming, slightly bucktoothed smile would have melted the heart of a limestone head marker. “I saw some ghosts in the yard last night,” he said matter-of-factly to his younger brother.

“Did not!” JJ scoffed, alarm mixed with suspicion. “You never!”

“Did so. They was scooting ‘mongst the trees, jingling, like their death chains was rattling. One of ‘em had a long, dark cape flowin’ around him, and their faces glowed, light flickering by their eye sockets.”

“Mama.” JJ interrupted her musings. “Are there such things as ha’nts?”

“Don’t know, JJ. Your pa believes in ghosts, he says. I wouldn’t want to meet up with one.”

Turk was just starting in on a chicken. He was at his story-telling best with feathers flying from his greasy hands.

“I remember when Bud Thompson’s face was plastered with his own brother’s brains. Horse stepped on his head.” He had the boys’ attention.

Ruby muffled a gag. “Turk! You say the most unappetizing things while you’re fixing a meal!”

“Bud went to bed that night, and a ghost came calling, all empty headed and bloody. ‘Give me back my brains . . . Give me back my brains!” He wiggled his gelatinous fingers in JJ’s petrified face, and laughed.

“Turk, was that true?” the boy asked.

“Truer than an outright lie,” the old timer answered.


Today I sat in my computer chair (Dee and I both use a special brand of Bum Glue that keeps us stuck to our seats for hours on end) from 8:30 to 10:30, then from 11:30 to 3:30, and then again from 4:00-9:30 and of course my 12:00 midnight to 2:00 a.m. shift when I do a little of this and a little of that, but at least 30 minutes of editing the ten pages I wrote today. I've never worked so hard at writing (I can feel my brain stretching, and my eyes straining and my back hunching over) but I've never had so much fun writing in my life. The hours fly by, and I forget to eat, to go to the bathroom, to get a drink . . . I get totally immersed in my make-believe world.

My deadline for the manuscript is September 1. Then Dee and I are swapping manuscripts for a week, and we'll both edit the very different 200 page tomes we've each (hopefully) finished. After the re-exchange, we'll then go back to our separate corners and weep quietly over all the red ink bleeding all over our masterpieces, and have a last week to make the corrections. And then . . . AND THEN . . . we're going to CELEBRATE!

How would you celebrate the grand conclusion to an impossible goal?
Fantasize and give us some ideas.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Raise Your Expectations

"If we did all the things we are capable of,
we would literally astound ourselves."
—Thomas Edison

My new best friend is Ruby. I'm with her 24/7 and I really like her. Maybe it's because I made her up. Anyway, I've learned a lot from her.

At eighteen she fell for the wrong guy. Most of us did that, but she thought he was her ticket out of a boring life, and literally fell for him, hoping that would keep his attention. It did, for a few hours—just long enough for him to leave her with a souvenir of their, um . . . friendship.

Trying to do the right thing by her new little guy, she left the baby with her mother so she could go to a new place and start over. Back in 1873 there weren't many career choices for an untrained young girl, so, sad to say, she fell back into her area of expertise.

Now, as a soiled dove, she has forgotten who she really is. Stuck in The Fat Chance Saloon, she accepts the lie: "You think you're capable of something more? Fat Chance!"

On the surface, Ruby and I don't have much in common. But I have stayed a few times at the Fat Chance Saloon, and I know how it feels to wonder if I am capable of something more.

Ruby might be rescued if someone sees her potential and helps raise her expectations. Time and again, I have had that experience. Lucky for me, I fell in love with the right guy, and he didn't ride off with all my hopes and dreams. He keeps handing them to me, over and over and over.

I hope Ruby finds a guy like mine. Maybe I'll make one up!

(Here's a scene I worked on today.)

Excerpt from
Son of a Gun

Marty Halverson

Jute started a small fire. Pre-empting the conversation, he said, “I don’t think we ought to talk about you and the woman, Boss. It ain’t really fitting. There’s things that won’t stand a straight answer, and what’s between a man and a woman is one of ‘em.”

“You liked her, though, didn’t you?” asked Leo.

“Sure. She seemed a right nice lady.”

“You call her a lady. That’s sort of funny under the circumstances.”

“No, I don’t reckon it is. Not the way I see things.”

The wizened cowboy fussed with the coals, shifted his legs, and finally got out the rest of his reply.

“Well, let’s just put it this way, Boss. I’ve knowed whores I’d take my hat off to, and respectable women I wouldn’t spit on.”

“I know what you mean,” said Leo soberly. “It’s the kind of thing where people are more what they think they are, than what they really are. You know what I’m trying to say, Jute?”

“Yes, sir, I do. It’s what I meant about Miss Jewel.”

“Her real name’s Ruby, Jute . . . Ruby.” They sat still again, watching and listening to the flames.

“I reckon most of us don’t get a second chance,” mused Leo. “We don’t get to be our better selves. Folks just expect us to keep on being, and we live down to their expectations. It’s a shame.”


~Who is someone you know who's staying at the Fat Chance Saloon? List some achievements you've observed, and send them a note of congratulations. Raise their expectations by reminding them who they already are.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sink Your Teeth In

Illustration from Dinosaur Roar by Paul and Henrietta Stickland

I've always admired people
who bite off more than they can chew,
and then chew it.

Here's a scene I been chewin' on today:

Excerpt from Son of a Gun,
Marty Halverson

“You gotta take a bath, mister,” Black Pearl told the man standing by the bar next to Ruby. “There’s a tub down the hall, and Tequila’ll scrub your back and give you a shave. Wash your hair, too. I don’t want no lice in my pillows. This is a clean house.”

Tall and graceful, Black Pearl looked like she'd been carved out of melted chocolate. The girl turned her brown eyes on Ruby. Round as they were, the whites softened her appearance, as did the fleecy crown of black hair. “You’re Jewel?” she asked.


“We don’t go by our real names, much. Most of the fair sisters are eluding the law, or at least a peeved husband.” Black Pearl picked up Ruby’s suitcase and walked toward the stairs. “I read an obituary of a sprightly young bird called Louise in Dodge. Died of tuberculosis it said. And then, she turned up in Fort Worth, as rosy as a peach, going by the name of Lulu. She begged me not to tell a soul, since her daddy said he’d disown her after he killed her if he heard of her sharing her virtues again.” Her teeth flashed a dazzling white when she laughed.

“How’d you end up here?” Ruby asked.

“Husbands. When I find one, I end up running away. I didn’t have any in Sam’s Town so I figured it was safe.”

“Didn’t think anyone would want to marry a soiled dove, meaning no offense,” said Ruby.

“Everybody wants to marry us, Honey,” Pearl told her. “We understand men, know how to make ‘em feel special and loved. Course most of them drink too much, lose their shirts regular in poker games, and frequent places like this, so they don’t deserve decent women anyway. And we aren’t the kind of girls they want to take home to meet Grandma.” She chuckled, then added wickedly, “Especially if we already know Grandpa.”

Monday, August 2, 2010

Write Away

Things you can't do when you're writing a novel:
  1. Sleep
  2. Talk on the phone
  3. Cook dinner
  4. Surf the net
  5. Go shopping
  6. Put on make-up
  7. Read a novel
  8. Pay your bills
  9. Make your bed
  10. Write a decent blog post.
Things you can do when you're writing a novel:

Have so much fun writing a scene that you forget to eat.

“So, what’s your real name, Turk?” Ruby said.

“Ain’t you ever heard of courtesy, girl?” Turk asked, surprised.

“Laws, I was raised on courtesy! When I was a girl and a stranger showed up at our ranch, Ma always offered food. And my daddy gave him tobacco. In fact, he tacked a note to the door when we was gone that said, ‘Help yourself to grub—please feed the chickens.”

Turk smiled. “What if they was on the dodge from the law?”

“Most of ‘em probably was, but my folks allowed them their privacy. After one cowboy had finished his dinner I asked him what his name was. ‘Jones is the name,’ he said. As soon as he rode off, Ma laid into me for being so ill-mannered as to ask any man his name.”

“So why you askin’ me, if you know it’s an impoliteness?”

“Because you’re not a stranger—you’re a friend.”

The old man looked at Ruby fondly. “It’s ‘cause you’re a friend that I’ll keep it to ‘Turk.’ Don’t want you influenced by my past.”

“You think I’d judge? After all the mud I’m draggin’ through? Come on, how’d you turn into a cook? Just tell me that.” She got out a cigar and handed it to him. “Let’s set outside a bit,” she said, knowing he couldn’t resist a smoke and an audience at the same time.

"The secret of success is to get up in the morning,
and go to bed at night,
and in between do something you want to do."
Bob Dylan


~Make a list of ten things you want to do.

~Do one of them today.

~Enjoy success!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Novel Post

Oma at work

Your whole novel is right inside your computer. You just have to be able to hit the keys in the right order. Lately I feel like I'm squeezing words out of rocks. (Dee says that means my writing is solid.) I've got about 170 pages so far. Here's a little sample:

Jack and Big Red

An excerpt from

Son of a Gun

Marty Halverson

Greenville was a two-day ride through sage and Indian paintbrush. Jack reversed his bandanna and pulled it above his nose to cut the trail dust, and settled down to the long day’s grind. The coolness of night had gone completely from the desert, and sunlight began to bite his skin.

After collecting his wages from Luke Gollaher, he’d strapped his possibles sack and bedroll on Big Red, and set off before dawn. At noon he threw off for an hour, eating cold bacon and bread by the wet seep of a spring.

“Red, what would Mama think of us now?” Jack always talked to his horse when they were far from civilization. She listened well, and seemed to bounce back the responses he was hoping for.

“She’d have me hell-bound for killing a man. I’ve done most of God’s sins. Heck, after Indian Joe I’ve prob’ly done ‘em all. But here I sit, as fresh and fit as a boy could be. No devils with little pitchforks after us, far as I can tell. Maybe Mama was wrong about God caring about all that.” Heat crowded around him, and the soil glittered between its patches of rock and dried bunchgrass. “Or maybe God just don’t care much about me.”

To the west the desert looked smoky with dark, dry clouds; to the east the near-by buttes baked, barren and arid. Twice riders appeared in the far distance, stirring up vague spirals of dust. In the middle of the afternoon a band of antelope scudded down a sterile draw and crossed the trail with the speed of gusty wind, racing into the desert. Four piled cattle skulls marked the turning to Greenville. At dusk of that long day Jack came to a shallow crossing of the Brazos that lay half-hidden in the junipers.

After a supper of bacon and canned tomatoes, he settled back to smoke away the last of the day’s light. The stars were shining out of a black sky and the night wind turned quite cold. Wilderness winds and coyotes were calling out of the near hills. Jack’s thoughts ran freely and odd, and a little sad.

Pressed in by the dark a man’s mind gets close to his mortal questions. It wasn’t often that Jack thought of his mother, but he remembered her telling him that large, fragrant, white flowers bloomed on the triangle cactus at night, closing up by morning. He was like that; the stars and moon brought out a tender side in him that also disappeared when the hot sun beat down.

“You miss your mama, Red?” he asked the horse. “She was a pretty one, just like mine was.” The mare only laid full on the ground every other day, and then for just a little while, but tonight Jack had his head propped on her belly. “You think they’re together up there, ridin’ Hank amongst them heavenly clouds?” Big Red snorted and Jack caressed her muzzle.

“Don’t think I could ever love anybody like I did that boy. He put such stock in me . . . shoot . . .” he muttered as he stirred the fire. “I’m getting maudlin, Red.”

Loneliness touched his nerves and got in his bones. “Here I’m talkin’ to a horse!” He took off his boots and stuck them on two sticks to dry out. “Tomorrow I’m lookin’ for a different kind of pony-tail,” he told his only friend.

Jack made good use of the next day’s travel time. Every movement in the purple squaw-weed gave him a target. When a lizard scurried among the black-eyed Susans, he pulled his .45 and sent it flying. At midmorning, he ate some beans, then set the empty can on a tree stump and knocked it off with one bullet. Later, when a diamondback slithered in the scrub brush, Jack’s left finger pulled the trigger. Six shots divided the snake into pre-cut chunks for lunch.

His fast draw seemed to be inborn, but he made the most of it by practicing. He couldn’t remember a time he wasn’t shooting snakes or squirrels, blue jays or black crows. It got so he even let them play his game. If a bird wasn’t flying, he kicked up some leaves to scare it off the branch and into the air before he brought it down. He shot without hesitation, with the intent to kill. Aiming his dark blue Colt was akin to pointing a forefinger.

“First off in town, we need us some bullets,” Jack told Red. “Then one of us is takin’ a bath.” Farms and ranches were getting closer together, promising civilization within the hour.


~Write a novel, one excruciating word at a time. (By the end you'll start getting the hang of it.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Write Group

JJ saw them in reflection before he heard the words. About to say "Howdy" he caught the drift of a conversation that would change his life.

"Ruby Barlow sure ain't no Sunday School teacher. Sam Lester had her working as an upstairs girl over at The Fat Chance ten years back, even after she had that kid 'a hers. Passed him off as Leo's boy, but he came a mite too early for that."

JJ recognized the Sullivans as the rumor-mongers. "Pa, they're talkin' about Ma. Aren't you going to say something—set 'em straight?" Leo didn't look away from the store window, staring in at the glossy black boots with their two-inch heels, digging his own into the soft dirt. He couldn't meet the dare in his son's eyes. "Pa, didn't you hear . . ."

"Quit dawdling, Jage!" His father could bark harsher than Turk ever did. "Get the buckboard, and load that sack of grain."

It was typical of Pa to ignore gossip. He stepped around contention as nimbly as he did cow-pies. But why wouldn't he defend his own wife's honor? It reminded JJ of a time he trailed a fox to a nest of Texas bobwhites. The hen let out a shrill whistle and spread her feathers to protect her young, while the male scuttled soundlessly into the brush. Disgusted, JJ let the fox go and took "daddy quail" home for dinner. Ma had agreed the coward deserved roasting.

As usual, the ride back to the ranch was silent. If Josey were here, he and Pa would be talking about books. Pa was obsessed with anything to do with letters—why else would he insist his two sons both be called by their initials? It was humiliating. Miss Milner announced to the whole school that the Barlow boys were there mainly to teach them their alphabet. His older brother was named after Uncle Josey, as well as Grandpa Manchester Josiah Barlow, and called MJ to avoid confusion, although it hardly seemed necessary since both his namesakes were dead. JJ had taken to calling him Josey just to spite Pa.

"What does JJ stand for?" This question never failed to rile his father. "I hate not having a real name."

Leo gave his stock answer. "Son, you have to make your name for yourself."

Son of a Gun, by Marty Halverson

If you've read this far, you're an honorary member of The Write Group. You are my connection to the outside world. I've become a hermit, making up imaginary friends because I'm neglecting all my real ones—writing a book is solitary work. I read somewhere that the most important writer's tool is "bum glue." (It keeps you stuck to your seat.) Another crucial tool is feedback.

Without referring to the excerpt above, can you answer these questions?
  1. Who is this book about?
  2. Where and when is it taking place?
  3. What is the problem this character is trying to solve?
I need to know if I'm communicating!


~Write an introductory scene. Without intruding, have the character introduce himself, tell us where we are and what his problem is.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A New Character in Twelve Steps

Ruby emerges from my typewriter

Ruby drank her colored water and wiped her mouth. "None of that tarantula juice sold here, Mister. Can I have another one?" She was perspiring from the dance, and cinnamon colored tendrils curled at her hairline. Leo wondered if she smiled like this at every cowboy who swung through the doors of the Fat Chance Saloon, or if she could tell he needed encouragement to drop extra coins on the mahogany bar. The dance had cost him 75¢ and every drink was a dollar, but a night in Sam's Town wasn't cheap—or typical.

"Are you a boarder?" Leo asked, embarrassed, knowing what this implied.

"I'm stayin' here, if that's what you mean. But just for a while. I've got a little boy back in Greenville, and I'm trying to get on my feet so I can take care of him proper." Leo looked down at his calloused hands.

"Don't you go judging, me," Ruby frowned, unwrapping the ribbon she had around her wrist and tying back her thick russet curls. "It's not like I'm some life-long soiled dove. I'm only nineteen. I just need to make some money for me and JJ."

The tinny keys of the piano roused her sense of responsibility as Sam slapped the bar. "Gents, balance your ladies onto the floor. The professor is going to play us a waltz. Tickets please."

Ruby teased the paper stub from Leo's pocket, tore it half-way through, and twirled out of his reach, sweet-talking him with her eyes. "C'mon. Take a turn with a fallen angel."—Son of a Gun, by Marty Halverson

These are some of my imaginary friends. We're just getting acquainted. I usually write short stories, biography or creative non-fiction, but now I'm trying my hand as a novelist. Son of a Gun is the story of Ruby's son JJ, his quest to find his father, and how Leo changes their lives. It is so much fun to create characters and then see what they say and do. I love it!

Do you want a new BFF? Here's how to get one in a dozen steps:

Character Sketch
  1. Name:
  2. Nickname:
  3. Birth Date/Place:
  4. Character Role: (Main or minor)
  5. Physical Description: (Age, race, eye color, hair color/style, build, skin tone, style of dress)
  6. Characteristics/Mannerisms: (Physical flaws, habits)
  7. Speech pattern/voice: (Particular phrases)
  8. Personality traits: (Strengths, vices, interests, favorites)
  9. Background: (Family tree, childhood, pivotal events in life, religion, outlook)
  10. Internal conflicts: (Personal problems, emotional turmoil)
  11. External conflicts: (What is preventing his success?)
  12. Occupation/Education: (How did he become what he is?)
I've spent the last few days writing character sketches, asking Ruby, Leo and some other folks questions, using these prompts. Then I write down their answers. I've been surprised at the details they supply: I noticed Ruby fiddling with her ribbon right off. And Leo mentioned that his mother was a Quaker. Interesting. So do Quakers drink and gamble and carouse? Why is he at the Fat Chance Saloon?

The more I get to know my imaginary friends, the more real they become. Where exactly do they live, and when? What's going on in their corner of the world? Why do they matter? I can't wait to tell their story.

Elizabeth George says, "Give your characters a chance to tell you what part they're going to play in your novel. Believe me. They will."

I'm listening.


~Create a new character. Use the twelve steps as prompts and let your imaginary friend run wild!